Metaphors, Cat-Talk, and Advice for Doc Students

This fall, the faculty at the university from which I recently retired went on strike, largely over proposed changes in health care. The strike was settled quickly, but during that time, some former students came to me with a dilemma. They were responsible for writing the doctoral student newsletter. Typically, the newsletter contains a “Dear Doctor” feature, in which students pose a question and a faculty member responds. Because retired faculty were not part of the strike, but might want to be supportive, they asked if, perhaps, my cat Tony—who had attended most of my Zoom classes and advising appointments—might like to write the column.  

How could I resist? But the request forced me to ponder: What might a cat say in this situation? What advice would he give? The experience reminded me, yet again, of the power of metaphor and perspective-taking in creative thinking. Examining an issue, problem, or situation from a different perspective requires us to engage in flexible thinking. Some of these exercises are familiar to creative teachers. We ask students to consider the situation in Venice from Shylock’s perspective or debate the points of view involved in historical conflicts. Such studies are particularly valuable when, like Shylock, it can be tempting to view individuals or “sides” in a conflict as obviously right or wrong. Things are almost always more complicated.

Fortunately, perspective taking does not need to be limited to studies of literature or history. Synectics suggests that we can gain understanding of even inanimate objects or physical principles by “being” the thing. At a basic level, imagining ourselves as a blood cell traveling the circulatory system can make the path more vivid and easy to understand. But the same processes can be useful in understanding more complex content. Remember, Einstein is said to have used thought experiments about a train in developing the theory of relativity.  We can do the same things with simpler mathematical principles. How might a fraction feel about being reduced or equivalent to other fractions? What might ¾ think about 6/8? Similar questions might be asked about algebraic equations. What would they think about being simplified? What about the electrons involved in chemical bonding? What might that experience be like for them?

As silly as such questions might initially sound, they can allow us to think more deeply about important concepts, supporting both comprehension and creativity. You might take a look at the things you are teaching this week. Is there something that could be better understood by examining another perspective—human or object? If you try, I’d love to hear about it.

And if you are curious about what Tony had to say to doctoral students, I’ve pasted it below. He ended up being edited somewhat, as the strike ended before the newsletter came out, but some of his original advice is good for graduate students anywhere.

Many students are concerned about the faculty strike. What is going to happen to us?

[Stretch. Scratch, scratch.] Oh, you have questions? Worries? I understand. Lots of things worry me. I worry when my human leaves the house. Or the room. I worry when my food bowl is empty. I worry when my cat friends disappear. Fortunately, I know what to do about worries. Be a cat.

I know, I know. Growing silky fur and an exceptional tail probably aren’t in your skill set, but in many ways, doctoral students are like cats already. Think about it. You are not here to be walked around on a leash like SOME other species I could name. You are independent. You have ideas. You don’t march in lockstep groups. You know what they say about herding cats. That’s you, or it can be.

Truth is, coming into a doctoral program is a cat apprenticeship. You come in having spent many (many many) years being given educational direction and step-by-step instructions for your learning. When you leave, you will be scholars in your own right. Of course, you will still have much to learn from colleagues, but it is a different kind of learning in which each learner—each cat—comes to the table as a valued peer, not a (ahem) puppy to be trained. You are getting ready to forge your own paths. Like a cat.

Now, when your faculty supporters are occupied with the strike, you might feel a bit like I do when my human disappears—worried and wondering who will help me. Perhaps some of my feline strategies will help you.

  1. Remember, just as my human always returns, the faculty will be back. They care about your learning and very likely are as worried about the separation as you are. No one wants you to miss your educational food. When they return, they will work hard to make sure you get what you need. Don’t let yourself get so caught up in worry that it keeps you from doing the things you can do.
  2. In the meantime, practice your independent cattitude. What is your work as doctoral cats? To think. To critique. To ponder. This is a fine chance to strengthen your individual thinking, imagining the day when you are a scholar on your own. I might spend my days grooming my coat—because it truly is luxurious—but you can spend time practicing catlike intellectual independence. This might mean trying out different kinds of note taking to see what helps you, brainstorming how the ideas in your readings tie (or conflict with) your interests, creating reading guides or advanced organizers that might help others, or reaching out to colleagues to compare ideas. I have heard my human say that she sometimes learned more from her doctoral colleagues in study groups than she did in her classes. Learning can continue.
  3. Don’t forget that you are surrounded by support. You have each other. You have the cats in your cohort and the cats who have been in doctoral herds longer than you have. Reach out. Encourage and strengthen each other. Ask questions. Share what you know. Create a study group to compare ideas. There is a huge amount of professional wisdom in your community.

Many years ago, when my human was in graduate school, her advisor brought all the incoming students around a conference table and said, “Look around. These are your professional colleagues. They will be your colleagues for as long as you are in this field. We are a professional family. We support one another. We help one another succeed. I don’t ever want to hear about you doing anything else.”  And it was true. The people in that program, including those from years ahead and behind her, have been her best professional support network for more than thirty years. Begin building that now. Your cat-colleagues are likely to be part of your professional network longer than the faculty. When my humans are gone, cats stick together. You can do that, too.

In feline solidarity, Tony

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